The violence accompanying this week's leftist call for a national in El Salvador is a reminder that the revolutionary change under way in Central America is the most immediately dangerous threat challenging the US in the Caribbean area.
Items of Realpolitik, this area is at least as strategically important to the US as is Afghanistan to the Soviet Union.
There was a time when the US was able to run the Caribbean the way it wanted, as a kind of backyard where it had proprietary rights. Those days have gone.
This does not mean that the US would never intervene militarily in the Caribbean. It has the capability in strictly military terms. But the political fallout from any such move must make any American president pray that he will be spared the ultimate Caribbean crisis: having to choose between sending in US troops or standing idly by as some key country in the region is brought into a subordinate relationship with either the Soviet Union or the Soviet Union's client and mini-partner, Cuba.
The Carter administration recognizes the inevitability of change in Central America. The isthmus, said Assistant Secretary of State William G. Bowdler in a speech in New York last April, "is in the midst of a complex and difficult transition. The old order is changing . . . . But if the old order is passing, a new balance has yet to take hold."
What is US policy against the background of this recognition? to Quote Mr. Bowdler again:
"We will not attempt to impose our views. We will not use military force in situations where only domestic groups are in contention. We harbor no illusion that we can define the nature of change or substitute ourselves for Central American leadership; but we can and will support local reform initiatives."
That is what the US is trying to do in both Nicaragua (where the 4o-year rule of a single family, the Somozas, has been ended by insurrection) and in El Salvador (where an effort is under way against a background of mounting violence to break the long hold of the legendary 14 top families and their right-wing allies in the military command).
These are the two countries where the pace is being set for the current revolutionary change in Central America.
In addition, violence in Guatemala suggests that country may well be the next republic in the isthmus to get caught up in the upheaval -- particularly if its big but hitherto largely passive Indian community becomes politicized. For the moment, the remaining two Latin republics of Central America, Hon dura and Costa Rica, present (from the US viewpoint) less menacing situations.
It is by no means certain that the US efforts, in effect, to moderate the revolutionary swing of the pendulum leftward in Nicaragua and El Salvador will succeed. The American aim in both is to preserve some form of political pluralism so that neither ends up under a totalitarian system -- and certainly not one of the extreme left owing allegiance to the USSR or Cuba.
The best that can be said is that US has so far managed to fend off the worst.
If the greatest immediate risk is in Central America, there are other challenges in the Caribbean that the US cannot, is Cuba -- and Cuban leader Fidel Castro's manifest intent to exploit to his advantage every smoldering social or potentially revolutionary grievance in the region. The islands of Jamaica and Grenada have already attracted his interest.
The Panama Canal is still there, a key waterway perhaps a shade less strategically important than in an earlier era yet nevertheless one still vital for a US that looks out on both the Atlantic and PAcific Oceans. The basic need for the US to ensure for its ships free access to and passage through the canal remains unchanged. The Panama Canal Treaty the recently went into effect is aimed at that. But radical political change in Panama itself or in other lands adjacent to access routes to the canal would be just cause for concern in Washington.
And if one is thinking long-term, there is yet to be worked out a modus vivendi between the US and Mexico for the decades ahead when relations between the two are likely to become increasingly difficult. Mexico, with its newfound oil wealth, has in recent years shown a growingly assertive independence of an oil-hungry US.
Mexico's explosive rate of population increase, the chasm between its rich and poor, and the consequent mounting flood of illegal immigrants ("undocumented workers") into the US are all potential time bombs.
Next: What the US is doing in Central America.m